Cut and Paste. A Primer on Architecture School (Part 1)

Posted on January 10, 2012

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You voted for it, so here it is, my giant post about architecture school. The more I’ve worked on it, the larger it became. I’ve broken it into two separate posts. This week will focus on what actually comprises architecture school. Next week will focus on the experiential side of what to expect. Let me know about your architecture school experience or any other tips for students in the comments section. 

In the Beginning

So you’re thinking about becoming an architect? No? Well, I’m going to tell you what it’s like to go to architecture school anyway. If you talk to any architect, they will probably tell you a bunch of stories that horrify you, yet somehow seem to be amusing to them. Architecture school is a battlefield. It’s tough. There are a lot of late nights and failure, but there are also a lot of eureka moments and projects coming together at the last moment. Assuming you already know the basics about applying to architecture school and getting in, I’m going to go through some of what you’ll experience as an architecture student and give some tips to help along the way.

What is it?

There are commonly two paths to get a professional degree in architecture (in the US). You can get a 5 year professional degree in architecture or a 4 year Bachelor’s degree followed by a 2 year Master’s degree in Architecture. The second route allows you to get a Bachelor’s degree in another subject (business, art, etc) before getting your Master’s degree in architecture. Architects have always been expected to have a broad knowledge on many topics. A large part of our jobs is bringing together information from many different fields and then combining it into a single plan or idea. Naturally, architecture school puts students through a wide ranging amount of classes. You’ll have architectural history, structural classes, technical drawing, site planning, mechanical systems, studio classes and many others.

Don’t ask me why, just do it.

On top of all your architectural classes, you’ll have to take a lot of gen ed (general education) classes. Mostly, they suck. You’ll probably have as many non-architecture classes your freshman year that you have architecture classes. If you are still in high school, take as much college credit ahead of time that you can. Depending on where you go to college, having college credits will exempt you from certain classes. No matter what major you study, you will have to take gen eds. The more you can get out of the way now, the better.

I cannot stress enough how crappy taking general education classes in college can be. Most of the time you don’t want to be there and the teachers don’t either. Usually gen eds are taught by graduate or PhD students and they are only there because they have to be. At my university, every freshman was required to take two semesters of literature classes. When you have 5,000 students who all have to take the same class, you have a LOT of different teachers. Most of them were graduate students. My teacher took the class very seriously and made sure to give us 6 page papers every frigging week, while other students in different sections had teachers who would cancel class every other week and never give more than a two page assignment the whole semester. It gets me angry just remembering it.

By lessening the amount of classes you have to take, you can devote more time to architecture or sign up for other classes you’re interested in. Most architects will tell you to take business classes or get a business minor if you have the time. That’s all very nice and good and will come in very handy if you plan on running your own firm. I would argue that you should find something you’re interested in and become an expert in it. Having skills on your resume that aren’t architecture will set you apart from everyone else. Business classes, of course, will look very good, but being Spanish speaking anywhere within 100 miles of the Mexican border could make you much more valuable. Likewise, having a background in fine arts could give you an edge when applying to firms that specialize in that building type. By becoming fluent in an unrelated field, it will open your mind to thinking differently from what they teach you in architecture school. The better you’re able to understand and communicate across multiple fields and disciplines, the more successful you’ll be as an architect.

Watch Them Drop Like Flies 

I’m not going to lie to you. Architecture school is hard. A lot of people that you become friends with your freshman year will drop out. The first year is pretty easy compared to the years ahead, but compared to what most high school students are used to, it’s a huge adjustment. You’ll get enough architecture in that first year to decide if you’re cut out for it, and for a lot of students, they aren’t. If you make it to your junior year, those around you will most likely be the ones with you at graduation. As Bob Borson mentions in a similar post about architecture school, there aren’t many members of fraternities or sororities in the architecture program. You learn that architecture school will take up a lot of your time and you can’t afford to be out partying every night with your Ag buddies. It’s tough love, but if you can’t take your education seriously, you will never be an architect.

Architects like to say that architecture is a calling. It’s a profession that requires you to care about what you do. Sometimes that means going above and beyond on projects. The field of architecture is wide ranging and allows you to take many different paths. You’ll have to find your passion in architecture. If you don’t, you will burn out fast. Architecture school is a great place to start testing out things that interest you. Take the time to explore different aspects of architecture and when you graduate, you’ll be much better prepared to find the right career. If you want to be a residential architect who gets his/her hands on every aspect of a project and right out of school go to a huge architecture firm drawing roofing details for manufacturing plants, you will hate your life.

The Studio

The architecture studio will be ever present in your education. It’s the place where you spend most of your time. Studio classes are usually 9-15 hours of class in studio a week and a heck of a lot more time working on projects outside of your “classroom time”. When you have work for other classes, you do it in the studio. It will become your second home. Sometimes it will be your first home. Architecture students are even given keys to the building so they can be in their studios 24/7. They start off so clean at the beginning of the year, but by the end, they are a chaotic mess of failed models, scraps, tools, works in progress, takeout menus, stacks of Red Bull and Mountain Dew cans and anything else students need to live in the studio. I kept my guitar in the studio to take breaks with. We also had Frisbees, footballs, playing cards, Nerf guns, mini fridges, couches, the list goes on…

The reason your studio classes take the forefront in your architectural education is not necessarily the content, but the process you learn along the way. In the studio classes, you will be given a design problem which you will translate into a design for a building (or multiple buildings, urban plan, etc.) which will then be presented by you and critiqued. You may have 3-4 projects a semester or just one. Studios teach you how to assess problems and create solutions for them. It’s in learning how to think in that way and by actually solving problems, over and over, that you become a good architect.

It’s important to take time to step back and refresh your mind while being in the studio for hours on end. Get out and get some coffee with other students. Go for a 30 minute walk. Go home and take a shower (seriously, phew). Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to leave it alone for a bit and come back to it with a fresh mind.

Looks like a lot of hard work and late nights to me..

[Image Source: SIUC School of Architecture]

You will be forced to do group projects. Take a leadership role, do more than your fair share and do it well. It won’t go unnoticed by your professors and peers. Collaboration is a huge part of what practicing architects do. There is no way to get anything built without having multiple people with various viewpoints work together. Learning how to work well with others will only improve your final product. It will help you see things you didn’t before and allow you to explore your work from new angles. The best part of collaboration is having your peers evaluate your work before your professors. It’s a great way to hone your designs before your final critiques.

The Crits

Critiques happen at the end a project. You present whatever you’ve generated for your project (models, renderings, animations, etc.) and you’ll be critiqued by a panel. This is usually your professor, a couple other architecture professors and possibly people from other professions with an expertise in your particular project type. For instance, if your class is designing a museum, the curator from a local museum might be on the panel.

If you’re prepared and have a well designed project, crits can be a great experience to have others give you constructive criticism on how to make your designs better. They will also help you understand the significance of good decisions you made. If you are ill prepared or have sloppy work, crits can be your worst nightmare.

[Image Source: Architectural Association in London]

Modeling

Not that kind. You’re not pretty enough for that anyway. Models are used for every studio project, whether they’re physical models or digital models. Digital modeling has improved leaps and bounds in the last 10 years, but it cannot replace the act of building a physical model. Just like hand drawing, building a physical model for a design teaches more about it’s weight in the real world than a computer is capable of. Being able to hold a model in your hand and explore it’s proportions and spaces up close has a quality that is not replicatable on a computer. Since you will be building a lot of models, get used to deep cuts and using super glue as a quick fix. That way you can go get stitches after your crit in the morning. I still have scars on my hands from cuts received by building models in school.

The wood shop has been a fixture of architecture schools for years, but digital fabrication labs have started to become available at a lot of schools. In these labs, you’re able to take computer models and use either a laser cutter or CNC machine to make a physical model out of many different materials. Some schools are even equipped with 3D printers. They are able to “print” a model by layering plastic together. Very cool. I highly recommend taking advantage of these new technologies. They make much more complex modeling possible where it would have been very difficult with previous methods, plus they can save you a lot of time.

Speaking of technology and models, it doesn’t hurt to branch out to other colleges on your campus to see if you can use their equipment. The industrial design lab at my university had a much nicer shop and even gave us (if you asked nicely) some large scraps of high density foam, which is a very expensive material that’s great for modeling. It’s what industrial designers use to make all their mock-ups and models.

With everything becoming more digital and with the emergence of BIM, there is a lot of very expensive software out there that you will be expected to learn and use. You will have a computer lab that will have some of the software for you to use, but you might not have access all the time. You have to be able to work in the studio, at the library, at home, Starbucks, etc and you’ll probably need your own copy of whatever software you’re using. When you add up the cost of just the basics you’ll need, it might make your head explode. I’m not going to condone pirating the software, but I will say that if you were to ask around a typical architecture studio, how much of the software has actually been purchased, it would probably be something like 5-10%. Some companies do make student priced copies of their software, but they tend to put restrictions on them and they are still pretty darn expensive. Unfortunately for many students, the only way to afford the software is to pirate it.

When it comes to learning whatever your software of choice, you may be able to take a class either through the architecture program of another college. If classes are not available, your best resources are other students and the internet. Your peers may already have experience using the software and it’s really easy to get a mini-tutorial from them. YouTube is filled with video tutorials on every software imaginable. Sites like Lynda.com have extensive video tutorials for everything that you can access for a monthly fee.

Professors

Take advantage of your professors as a resource. They are all required to keep office hours so students can come and talk to them one on one. Creating a closer relationship with your professors will help you stay ahead of the curve in your classes. It can help create opportunities for you in school and when you graduate. One of my professors made it his duty to help his students find jobs across the country when they graduated. He has been around for a while and knows a LOT of architects. The more he knew about you, the better your chance of landing a great job right out of school. Another professor pushed me to learn a piece of software that turned into a few great projects, a thesis, co-writing multiple academic papers and a trip to Germany to present at an international conference.

Each professor is unique with a different background and specialty. If you’ve honed in on something that really interests you, find the professor that has experience in that field and learn from them. You may even be able to get an assistant job helping them do research or write papers. It may not sound like fun, but having your name on academic papers can be a very good thing.

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the end. Be sure to leave your opinions in the comments and come back next week for part 2.


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